Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement
An On-line Archival Collection
Special Collections Library, Duke University
In the past few years a cynicism has set in among our radical thinkers which has set the tone for all anti-establishment action. Under the guise of toughening our line, we have hardened our minds, and frozen our ideas. There is a great deal of ego satisfaction in defying the enemy, in baiting and teasing and attacking. One feels ones power to disarm. The only problem is that one is rarely attacking the enemy -- rather a potential ally, one of the people, or a crowd of people.
I am tired of hearing the invective of self-pity from Black "radicals", students, women, including myself. For a long time I went along with the line that "Of course, we ultimately want a humane and socialist society of peace and good will and brother/sister-hood but for the time being, we must not criticize anything an oppressed person does; any gain is commendable; any action forgiveable; for after all we have suffered and deserve some reward now." That is a logical statement and cries for justice. But it calls for a child's justice -- that the world be as one wishes it for oneself. The American worker made that argument three times, and the third time his movement died, perhaps forever. Now he sits, all puffed up with a pocketfull of credit cards and his Playboy magazine watching his new colored TV. He sold out for jobs by going into three capitalist wars, because they were in his economic 'interest'. We have learned to avoid the same errors, but not how to analyse short-term and long-term interests.
What do the Jews have now that some bankers and real estate colonialists own a piece of property in the midst of Arab poverty? Justice, yes. Many Arabs want the same kind of justice at any cost (by any means necessary), and many Africans, and Afro-Americans, and young radicals. And Female Liberationists.
Women have every 'right' to be completely outraged when they become aware of the kind of outright and subtle oppression they suffer and that their sisters throughout the world suffer. They have every 'right' to be outraged at the indifference of men to their plight, their willingness to reap advantages until it is no longer possible. But just as might does not make right, nor does right make right. That is, one does not then have the right to play the same game with the tables turned. If one does this, one is playing society's game, for that is what this society is all about: absorption is its game.
It seems to me that we have grossly misunderstood revolutionary philosophy. We have extracted what is 'useful' to our preconceived notions of revolution, and left the basis, the way of thinking, behind. What does Mao mean when he says, "To get rid of the gun, one must pick up the gun?" He is speaking to people (a peasantry) who have attained a revolutionary consciousness to some degree; a revolutionary war was being fought. Obviously the context to such a statement is the key, yet the command is extracted and misused.
Society (Western) programs us to linear thinking. We can choose between its way or the opposite (Mary McCarthy said we have the choice in an American hotel to have the airconditioning on or off, but we connot open the window). And we fall right into the trap. Within that linear logic, we misinterpret every valuable bit of information that may come our way, not to speak of whole ideologies. We interpret 'correct' thinking as the right line, rather than an internalized, creative, dialectical analysis of every aspect of reality, including ourselves. Too often 'guerrilla' action is abstracted from war (guerrilla theater, etc.), or taken to mean scattered street fighting, provocation at the wrong time. Guerrilla action as closely approaches non-violent resistance as it does street-fighting, though it cannot be defined as either. Certainly such action requires extraordinary seriousness and maturity. Sometimes it requires that one do nothing and say nothing depending on the situation.
The young street fighter's 'confrontations' with the police ('pigs') is a far cry from the Che's mending the wounds of fallen Batista soldiers (Love your enemy?). In the American radical's dialect to be a 'mother' means to be a 'motherfucker'. Compare that to what Che's comrades said of him -- that Che was like a mother to them. Mao did not say that one learns to think as one does, but that one learns to do as one does. The thinking is the groundwork for action. Indeed thought then flows from action, but not unless there is a solid base for analysis either through thought or experience, and preferably both. If one has not thought through what one is about, one is acting on society's programming; that is unavoidable.
I see women falling into the same trap. We avoid the simplicity of a Betty Friedan 'capitalist' militancy, but fall for the radical's erroneous assumptions about how to end our oppression (even when we have rejected these radicals as persons -- male chauvenists -- and rejected their goals, we seem to retain their faulty analysis.).
I have often heard it said of late that teaching, thinking, patience are virtues but they just do not work. How would we know? We say that Martin Luther Kind didn't 'succeed', 'win' (the ol' ballgame?); his methods did not 'work'. Beautiful capitalist terminology. The very proof that they 'worked', from the enemy's point of view, is that they had to get rid of him, and of Malcolm X, and of Robert Kennedy. Now why do we not study what these characters did that make them so distasteful to the system? Robert Kennedy was going to be elected, and there was no way we could have prevented or aided that; we could now analyse the situation, and face the reality that things are much worse than we imagined -- that no liberal is going to be allowed to operate at high level, and soften things so we may be able to speak to a turned-on, forward-looking, hopeful people, rather than people terrorized by the violence of the police, fearing the cattle cars and concentration camps. They know, as we do not seem to know, that it can happen here, but we condemn them as 'good Germans' instead of teaching them a historical lesson about why the good Germans were so good, and how they got it anyway. At least we could teach ourselves.
Martin Luther, Erick Erickson tells us in Young Man Luther, got married in order to please his father and displease the Pople. Luther, unlike some of his radical contemporaries did not question the institution of the patriarchal family which had so tortured him. He transferred his allegience from the Pope to Germany, and from the communal monastary to the family. Luther essentially found a solution to his personal problems through a social solution. Erickson thinks that such 'rebellion' is healthy and is the key to social development. Erickson would think that, since he has a vested interest in change, but not revolution. Many radicals, black and white, and many female rebels seem to be following in Luther's steps. Ultimately such a person is serving the status quo (the economic order).
I know that my human potential will never be reached. I know that I am not only damaged, but studded both physically and intellectually. Both poverty and my situation as a female and as an American have contributed to this 'retardation'. When I used to feel sorry for myself, my mother would tell me that there were little children starving and without clothes at all and with no shelter at all, and worst of all who were orphans (as she had been). It always angered me that my bad condition was not sufficient for complaint -- that I had to bear it because others were worse off than I, but I now see the wisdom in that sort of stoicism. Women have that kind of stoicism, as do poor people. They have to be stoical to bear reality at all.
I have felt what I call 'metaphysical agony' in the face of the reality that I can never make up for what has been lost to me; that I can never really be the fine scholar I should like to be. Even if I were accepted by my fellow scholars, which happens only to the most extremely well-educated women, I still would not have the kind of training necessary to be a really good scholar. Again a combination of being poor and being female conspired to prevent my receiving the kind of superior education reserved only for the wealthy, and the few males they choose to take out of the lower class. For me to 'make up' for lost time would be to make a machine out of my brain, and by the time I might be prepared, I should have destroyed my creativity like so many scholars who have 'made' it.
I look at the healthy, robust, clear-eyed, highly intelligent, informed, and confident children of lightness -- the wealthy boys and girls, and I am stunned more than outraged that such a tiny few are let through. Even the rather mediocre and the females somehow gain a zest for life based upon their constant exposure or access to all that is beautiful and fine and tasty and splendid in Western Civilization and other cultures as well through travel. I never really believed that the 'poor little rich girl' was bad off. Her lonliness and princess separateness seemed delicious to me, never having even a bit of space for privacy and no 'things'.
We are damaged -- we women, we oppressed, we disinherited. There are very few who are not damaged, and they rule. The reason they see their kind of world, their system as best of all possible worlds is that it is utopian for them, and they plan to keep it. The oppressed trust those who rule more than they trust themselves because self-contempt emerges from powerlessness. Anyway few oppressed people believe that life could be much different, and they do not even know about the rich and how they live. All they ever see are the viceroys, the mignons -- the middle-class cheap imitations. The oppressed find it hard to envy them, caught up as they are with making it and keeping it and showing it. But the rich do not have to show anything to anybody. The elite are 'free' at the cost of the slavery of the many.
We are damaged and we have the right to hate and have contempt and to kill and to scream. But for what? Do we want to change things or just 'get it out of our system'? Or do we want the oppressor to admit he is wrong, to withdraw his misuse of us? He is only happy to admit guilt -- then do nothing, but try to absord and exorcise the new thought. Witness the Kerner and Walker reports. In fact, some such report on women exists. But what can we get from a new vocabulary of consciousness-raising invective. We have not the power to carry out our threats, so we must only want to be accepted by our oppressor. That does not make up for what I have lost, what I never had, and what all those others who are worse off than I never had nor lived to not have. No such petty return will compensate. No-thing will compensate for what this society has done to me, and prevented me from doing. No-thing will compensate for the irreparable harm it has done to my sisters in insane asylulms throughout this 'land of the free'. No-thing will compensate for my mother's incredibly brilliant, untouched, except by poverty, mind turning to mush with alcohol.
How could we possibly settle for anything remotely less, even take a crumb in the meantime less than total annihilation of a system which systematically destroys half its people -- its female children, and badly damages most of the male children?
Martin Luther King and most other saints have been able to attain a state of total love which makes them want to save their enemy as well as the oppressed. I think, had King lived, he would have reached a higher stage of humanity, that of the revolutionary. The revolutionary has a passionate love for humanity, and a passionate hatred for his enemy. He is cool; he needs no immediate rewards. He is not ambivilent; he knows that not only is there no hope for the rulers, he would not even want to partake in any change that is tainted with the hands of such cold-blooded murderers. I think that Martin Luther King harbored such a hatred, and that it was slowly being justified in his consciousness, and that is why he is dead today. It is interesting that 'saints' always die young, before they develope into revolutionaries, yet the Luther's live to ripe old age.
What we must realize is that we are up against a system which was practically impermeable to ordinary struggle even a century ago, and that the cancer has now spread everywhere. People are fighting it on fronts all over the world today, but ultimately its destruction will have to come from its own people, who are themselves the diseased cells, barely able to see.
By some miracle, a few of us escape absolute terror; a few of us do not turn to drugs and alcohol and crime. Women are somewhat less damaged because they are required to raise society's labor force and infantry. Some taboos are set on their taking drugs, becoming criminals. Because they are second-rate, they are not even given the privilege of being anti-social. The 'liberation' that women have attained has been in terms of access to debilitating activities. (You've come a long way, baby; now you have your own cigarette, thanks to Virginia Slims.)
A few of us have emerged from the masses of women in this country to speak out to the rest of those women. We are beginning to identify the problem, and the enemy. It is not surprising that many of the women who have emerged as spokeswomen have been involved in organizing other oppressed Americans; that many are well-educated and professional. Some are from the ruling class. These women are more accustomed to working for some one else's 'cause' than their own liberation. Women are never supposed to admit that they have problems. In fact, we are not accustomed to airing our deeper problems with society, and easily fall into a traditionally accepted man-hating, man-baiting. In the past such discussions have been necessary for psychic survival, but now I think we can go far beyond that, and take the masses of women and men with us.
It may be that the more fortunate women among us will not be the best leaders for our movement; that they should recognize the masculine structures of thought in themselves. It seems to me that poor women, especially Black women and Indian women and Mexican-American women are more aware of the connections between their oppression as women, and the caste system in general. Certainly those sisters who have had access to learning which can advance the thought of the more oppressed, should give it generously, but not lead.
Actually, I think that if we make a thorough analysis of the meaning of female liberation (liberation of the female principle -- maternity -- in all beings), we shall find as many males as females committed to their own salvation and that of humanity. I am not saying that we should try to attract males (in the manner of N.O.W.), but that we should make a complete analysis and use all the information available. But we should not simply imitate the rhetoric of the Black movement. It must be frustrating for the Black people to see their language taken out of context and destroyed not only by the society's media, but also by young white radicals, and now by women. Phrases like 'Aunt Tom', 'Jane Crow Law', and 'shuffling' have no place in our movement. These terms have specific meaning for Black people, male and female. Language which is historically and socially at odds with the subject of analysis not only cheapens one's analysis, but is an inslut to the absolutely necessary struggle of the Black people in this country, a struggle necessarily related to our own. Their struggle (and one-half of them are female, which is often forgotten) is a struggle against genocide. I think we have learned from the past that when one large segment of the population is in danger of genocide, so, too, is the entire population (anyone is suspect). In a sense we are all fighting a Fascist state and are defending ourselves from genocide, at the same time that we attempt to change the course of history. We can learn much about caste (the basis of the oppression of females) from the study of African slavery in America, because that is one extreme historical manifestation of caste, but we can not make direct analogies, or say which is better or worse. All oppression is bad. Starvation is worse. There are as many females as males starving in the world today. Yet clearly, under the present system, starvation could be alleviated, and the oppression of women could continue.
The American government is heir to the most brilliant purveyor of Imperialism that the world has ever known -- the civilized, 'docile' English middle class. Divide and rule is a method that has always worked perfectly for these insidious vipers, and is still working through American heirs. I will not here enter into a discussion of what is happening on the left -- not a splintering, but a competition -- but I will point out that the key to the divide and rule tactic is the ease with which the male, programmed as he is for proving his masculinity, can be led into competing with his comrades, brother, allies, turned against women, other groups, and forget entirely who his enemy is. What surprises me is that the same thing seems to already be happening among women in our newborn movement. Women, too, are programmed for the masculine role through its opposite -- femininity, so when women get in a power position, they fall prey to the proscribed masculine role.
Women are often self-righteous in their relations with men. Somehow it is more moral to be the oppressed than the oppressor. The person who must play the weaker role has only his moral stand to fill his ego. A person who has been oppressed is less laden with guilt, and tends to allow themselves more freedom of action than the guilty party. Often the weak exert power over those who are in a weaker position. Women often play exactly the same persecuting role they experience in relation to their children. White women have had the freedom to persecute Black males, and have used the freedom fully. Mexican-Americans have persecuted Black people as well. In a certain sense, American democracy has meant the freedom of everyone to persecute Black people. Many White American women have the same illusion of freedom as has the immigrant and the poor white male. All of this is just to remind ourselves that no one has a corner on oppression. We are programmed to compete with each other. When we finally do admit that we are oppressed, we insist that we are more oppressed that this or that group. If such indulgence provides an ego boost, it is at the cost of real knowledge, growth, and effectiveness. It is a personal solution, even if it sounds social.
-- Roxanne Dunbar
"A man who thinks he is a king is mad but a king who thinks he is a king is also mad" -- Jacques Lacan
Images and texts on these web pages are intended for research and educational use only. Please read our statement on use and reproduction for further information on how to receive permission to reproduce an item or how to cite it.